If you’ve only seen pictures of the capital of France, you might easily mistake some of the photos that go with this blog post as having been taken there since they appear to show familiar sites. Even if you’ve visited the City of Light, you still might wonder why the Eiffel Tower was now standing next to Sacre Coeur or since when was the Seine lined by all of those tall apartment buildings with terracotta roofs you typically find in the south of France. That’s because instead of being in Paris, we were recently in Lyon.
We knew about Lyon’s foodie reputation long before we moved to only 3 hours away by high-speed TGV train from the culinary capital of France. After all, there are over 2000 restaurants, 18 of them with a Michelin star and one of those received 3 stars, giving the city one of the highest concentrations of eateries per inhabitant anywhere in the country. In sorting through that long list of where we might have lunch and dinner, one word kept popping up that we knew generally to mean a wine cork, bouchon, while the name of one restaurant really caught my eye, “Arsenic”. I suppose that might be the kind of place you would only visit once. We needed to look further.
As soon as friends here heard where we were headed for a few days of vacation, the suggestions came pouring in of where we should eat. My initial reaction when someone told us to seek out a bouchon for traditional Lyonnaise cuisine, was that this would be like a diner in the US where large portions of hearty meals could be enjoyed. A description I’d read online seemed to bear this out as it talked about factory workers eating rich and filling lunches in these establishments. It all went askew, however, when the article continued with detailed descriptions of the food that would often contain tripe in all of its forms: deep-fried, sautéed in onions, smothered in herb and garlic sauce, or ground into sausage. In the US, New Jersey is well-known for its numerous diners, and we’ve eaten in many, but I don’t remember seeing “cow’s stomach” on the menu.
Perhaps less traditional but just as well-known, at least by Internet users, are the restaurant listings on a very popular website where visitors can rate their experiences with all things travel related. In Carcassonne that’s how we found our favorite and the number one restaurant in town, Le Blé Noir, so we decided to try our luck in Lyon and we were definitely not disappointed. Bill had made lunch and dinner reservations at a few places including Bollywood Tandoor where he enjoyed his best Indian meal ever thanks to all-fresh ingredients, perfect seasoning, and the attentive, amusing owner. And at last we made it to Carnegie Hall (alas, the restaurant, not the New York concert hall) where the French Ministry of Agriculture has twice awarded them the grand prize for the quality and preparation of the food.
Although we went to Lyon for the food, we stayed there for the history. In Carcassonne we are fortunate to live between 2 UNESCO World Heritage sites: the medieval Cité, Europe’s largest walled fortress and the Canal-du-Midi, now celebrating 350 years of helping to join the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea through the south of France. In Lyon, where a huge portion of the entire city has received that World Heritage status from the UN, you can walk among monuments, ancient churches, and other significant buildings in about 30 seconds of each other. It’s as if the UNESCO committee couldn’t decide what not to include so they just made it one giant symbol of heritage for all to enjoy.
The Rhône and Saône rivers join forces in what the Romans called Lugdunum 2000 years ago who left behind relics including tombs, baths, and a 10,000 seat amphitheater still in use today. The city prospered, even after the Empire collapsed, and continued to grow into the Middle Ages with multiple monasteries being established there and then through the Renaissance as a major center for the silk trade. We bought the City Card, partly because it included a tram tour through this especially hilly part of town where the walls of many buildings are painted in the trompe l’œil style that very effectively fool-the-eye.
We rode the funicular several times in the Renaissance quarter that is populated by covered walkways called traboules that protected the silk and the weavings from the elements as they were being transported from the workshops to the retail shops below and ships waiting at the docks. From there we moved several centuries forward, but only a short walk north, to one of the largest city parks in France, called La Tête d’Or. We spent most of one sunny day exploring the various landscapes, botanic gardens, the zoo, with time for lunch beside the lake.
But what about those views that make it look as if we’ve been to Paris? The “Eiffel Tower” you see is really just a broadcast tower about one-third the size of the real thing standing directly beside the Basilica of Notre-Dame and not Sacre Coeur. Instead of the Seine, you get 2 rivers for the price of one, including the Rhône which has numerous floating cocktail bars that we somehow managed to miss. Looks like we have one more reason to return!